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About the Author
OTTO PENZLER is a renowned mystery editor, publisher, columnist, and owner of New York’s The Mysterious Bookshop, the oldest and largest bookstore solely dedicated to mystery fiction. He has edited more than fifty crime-fiction anthologies. He lives in New York.
Read an Excerpt
There used to be a time when a person could make a decent living writing crime stories. Back then, a hardworking individual could earn two cents a word for a short story. Three cents, if he was exceptionally good. It beat polishing spittoons. Besides, it was fun.
Back then, starting a crime story was like reaching into a box of chocolates and being surprised by either the soft center or the caramel or the nuts. There were plenty of nuts in crime fiction, but you never knew what kind of story would come out of the machine until it started taking shape on the page. Like a jazz piano player, a good writer of short crime fiction didn't think he knew his job unless he could improvise in all twelve keys. Ringing variations on the theme was what made it such fun. Getting paid two or three cents a word was also fun.
For me, Private Eye stories were the easiest of the lot. All you had to do was talk out of the side of your mouth and get in trouble with the cops. In the PI stories back then, the cops were always heavies. If it weren't for the cops, the PI could have solved a murder - any murder - in ten seconds flat. The cops were always dragging the PI into the cop shop to accuse him of having murdered somebody just because he happened to be at the scene of the crime before anybody else got there. Sheesh! I always started a PI story with a blonde wearing a tight shiny dress who, when she crossed her legs, you saw rib-topped silk stockings and garters taut against milky white flesh. Boy. Usually, she wanted to find her missing husband or somebody. Usually, the PI fell in love with her by the end of the story, but he had to be careful because you couldn't trust girls who crossed their legs to show their garters. A Private Eye was Superman wearing a fedora.
The Amateur Detective was a private eye without a license. The people who came to the Am Eye were usually friends or relatives who never dreamed of going to the police with a criminal problem, but who couldn't afford to pay a private detective for professional help. So, naturally, they went to an amateur. They called upon a rabbi or a priest or the lady who was president of the garden club, or somebody who owned cats, or a guy who drove a locomotive on the Delaware Lackawanna, and they explained that somebody was missing or dead, and could these busy amateurs please lend a helping hand? Naturally, the garage mechanic, or the magician, or the elevator operator dropped everything to go help his friend or his maiden aunt. The Am Eye was smarter than either the PI or the cops because solving crimes wasn't his usual line of work, you see, but boy, was he good at it! It was fun writing Am Eye stories because you didn't have to know anything about criminal investigation. You just had to know all the station stops on the Delaware Lackawanna.
Even more fun was writing an Innocent Bystander story. You didn't have to know anything at all to write one of those. An Innocent Bystander story could be about any man or woman who witnessed a crime he or she should not have witnessed. Usually, this was a murder, but it could also be a kidnapping or an armed robbery or even spitting on the sidewalk, which is not a high crime, but which is probably a misdemeanor. Go look it up. When you were writing an Innocent Bystander story, you didn't have to go look anything up. You just witnessed a crime and went from there. My good friend Otto Penzler, who edits this series, insists that if any book, movie, play, or poem has in it any sort of crime central to the plot, it is perforce a crime story. This would make Hamlet a crime story. Macbeth, too. In fact, this would make William Shakespeare the greatest crime writer of all time. But if Penzler's supposition is true, then spitting on the sidewalk would be a crime worthy of witness by an Innocent Bystander.
Okay, the Innocent Bystander witnesses a heavyset gentleman clearing his throat and spitting on the sidewalk. He mutters something like "Disgusting!" at which point a dozen men in black overcoats, all of them speaking in Middle European tongues, start chasing him, trying to murder or maim him or worse. At some point in the story, depending on how short it will be, the police could enter as well, accusing the Innocent Bystander of having been the one who'd spat on the sidewalk in the first place. It all turns out all right when a blonde wearing a shiny dress and flaunting rib-topped gartered silk stockings clears her throat and fluently explains everything in eight different foreign languages, thereby clearing up all the confusion as wedding bells chime.
It was better to be an Innocent Bystander than either a Man on the Run or a Woman inn Jeopardy, even though these three types of crime fiction were kissing cousins. The similarity they shared was that the lead character in each of them was usually an innocent boob. The Innocent Bystander is, of course, innocent. Otherwise he would be a Guilty Bystander. But the Woman in Jeopardy is usually innocent as well. Her problem is that somebody is trying to do dire harm to her, we don't know why. Or if we do know why, we also know this is all a terrible mistake, because she's innocent, can't you see she's innocent? If only we could tell this to the homicidal maniac who is chasing her day and night, trying to hurt her so badly.
Well, okay, in some of the stories she wasn't all that innocent. In some of the stories, she once did something sinful but not too terribly awful, which she's sorry for now but which this lunatic has blown up out of all proportion and is turning into a federal case, shooting at her and trying to strangle her and everything. It was best, however, to make her a truly innocent little thing who didn't know why this deranged person was trying so hard to kill her. It was also good to give her any color hair but blond. There were no innocent blondes in crime fiction.
A Man on the Run was innocent, too, but the police (those guys again) didn't think so. In fact, they thought he'd done something very bad, and so they were chasing him. What they wanted to do was put him in the electric chair or send him away for life. And so, naturally, he was running. The thing we didn't know was whether or not he really was guilty. We certainly hoped he wasn't, because he seemed like a personable enough fellow, although a bit sweaty from running all the time. But maybe he was guilty, who knew? Maybe the cops - those rotten individuals - were right for a change. All we knew for sure was that this man was running. Very fast. So fast that we hardly had time to wonder was he guilty, was he innocent, was he in the marathon? The only important thing a writer had to remember was that before the man could stop running, he had to catch the guy who really did what the reader was hoping he didn't do, but which the police were sure he did do. At three cents a word, the longer he ran, the better off the writer was.
When I first started writing the Cop Story, I knew only one thing about policemen: they were inhuman beasts. The problem was how to turn them into likable, sympathetic human beings. The answer was simple. Give them head colds. And first names. And keep their dialogue homey and conversational. Natural-sounding people with runny noses and first names had to be at least as human as you and I were. Keeping all this firmly in mind, writing a sympathetic Cop Story became a simple matter.
"Good morning, Mrs. Flaherty, is this here your husband's body with the ice pick sticking out of his ear here?" "Yes, that is my dearest George." "Excuse me, ma'am, I have to blow my nose." "Go right ahead, Detective." "When did you catch that cold, Harry?" "I've had it for a week now, Dave." "Lots of it going around." "My husband George here had a bad cold, too, was why he stuck the ice pick in his own ear." "What have you been taking for it, Harry?" "The wife made me some chicken soup, Dave." "Yeah, chicken soup's always good for a cold." "Oh dear, just look at all that blood." "Sure is a sight, ma'am." "Didn't know a person could bleed that much from the ear, did you?" "No, ma'am, I surely did not." "Mind your foot, ma'am. You're stepping in it." "Oh dear." "Hot milk and butter's supposed to be good, too." "Medical Examiner should be here any minute, Harry. Maybe he can give you something for it." "I miss him so much." Once you humanized cops, everyone could understand exactly how good of heart and decent they were, and the rest was easy.
The hardest story to write was what was called Biter Bit. As the name suggests, this is a story in which the perpetrator unwittingly becomes the victim. For example, I make an elaborate plan to shoot you, but when I open the door to your bedroom, you're standing there with a pistol in your hand, and you shoot me. Biter Bit. I once had a wonderful idea for a Biter Bit story. This writer keeps submitting stories to the same editor who hates his work and who keeps rejecting them with a little slip saying "Needs work." So the writer writes a story titled "Needs Work," and he puts it in a manila envelope rigged with a letter bomb, which he mails to the despised editor, hoping to read in the next day's newspaper that the man has been blow to smithereens. Instead, there's a letter from the editor in the writer's mailbox, and when he opens the envelope, it explodes.
It needs work.
I promise you that the stories in this collection do not need work. You will shortly discover that today's crime story has come a long way from the prototypes of long ago. Show me an advertising man picking up a smoking gun beside the body of a gorgeous blonde exposing gartered silk stockings, and I will show you a man writing copy for the Model-T Ford. Show me a man kneeling on the fire escape outside the window of an unaware girl doing her nails, and I will show you a barber shop quartet singing "If I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate." But show me invention . . .
Show me wit . . .
Show me discovery . . .
Show me freshness . . .
And I will show you . . .
-- Ed McBain
Copyright (c) 1999 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Introduction copyright (c) 1999 by Hui Corporation. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.